[Tegel Prison, Berlin]
It may be possible to find an hour to think today. How many things there are to think about and what contrasts they present. The feast itself with its rich symbolism; the emergence of God from the quiet corner of Bethlehem into the wider world; the guiding star; the men who braved the wilderness; the joy of the encounter; the terror stricken king; the indifferent clergy; the wonderful providence of God. And besides all this, all the other things the feast commemorates—the baptism in Jordan, the hearing of the Father’s voice, the marriage feast of Cana. So very much to turn over in one’s mind.
Then the personal aspect. The many years I have spent in preparation and the day for renewing my holy vows. This year, in this time when men are yearning for a star to guide them and not a glimmer of a star appears because men’s eyes are blind and cannot see, the message of the feast is more usually urgent. We must pass it on and stir people’s understanding.
But to come back to my own personal predicament; in two more days my case will come up for trial. Just two days in which I can rely only upon God for there is no other help I can turn to. How can I pray for a Christmas star, for light on this problem. But God has left it unanswered; he is asking me to make the “step to freedom”—the decisive stride which will carry me form myself to lose myself completely in him. Here is also a wilderness to be crossed and a terrified ruler only too eager to use the sword…
People are frightened, they are scared to stride out firmly and honestly to the boundaries of their potential powers because they are afraid of what they will find at the borderline. The man who aims at fulfillment only within the framework of his own limitations must always be afraid of the unknown. The existence of the limitless, the eternal that is beyond our comprehension and yet vaguely draws us as being within our capacity for experience is the real source of our uneasiness…
For the man who desires to develop his highest potentialities today’s feast gives the laws and conditions, which should regulate his life. It shows him the way by which he can achieve a real proved individuality.
Man needs freedom. As a slave fettered and confined he is bound to deteriorate. We have spent a great deal of thought and time on external freedom; we have spent various efforts to secure our personal liberty and yet we have lost it again and again. The worst thing is that eventually man comes to accept the state of bondage—it becomes habitual and he hardly notices it. The most abject slaves can be made to believe that the condition in which they are held is actually freedom.
During these long weeks of confinement I have learned by personal experience that a man is truly lost, is the victim of circumstances and oppression only when he is capable of a great inner sense of depth and freedom. Anyone whose natural element is not an atmosphere of freedom, unassailable and unshakeable whatever force may be put on it, is already lost but such a man is not really a human being any more; he is merely an object, a number, a voting paper. And the inner freedom can only be attained if we have discovered the means of widening our own horizons. We must progress and grow, we must mount above our own limitations. It can be done; the driving force is the inner urge to conquer whose very existence shows that man’s nature is fundamentally designed for this expansion. A rebel, after all, can be trained to be a decent citizen, but an idler and a dreamer is a hopeless proposition.
Man’s freedom is born in the moment of his contact with God. It is really unimportant whether God forces man out of his limits by the sheer distress of much suffering, coaxes him with visions of beauty and truth, or pricks him into action by the endless hunger and thirst for righteousness that possess his soul. What really matter is the fact that man is called and he must be sufficiently awake to hear the call.
The law of freedom is an appropriate theme for today. When those worshippers knelt in homage on the floor of the humble stable with everything else put behind them—their homes, the wilderness, the guiding star, the agony of the silent star, the palace of the king and the grandeur of the city—when all these had lost their value and their impressiveness and the worshippers’ whole being was concentrated in the single act of adoration, the symbolic gesture of laying gifts before the manger signified the achievement of liberty. Then they were free.
Man must leave himself behind if he hopes to have even a glimpse of his true potentialities. But the surrender of the self is the thing we find most difficult to accomplish and so rarely succeed. To the modern mind it makes no sense because we have lost any concept of the boundless glory, the shimmering, unlimited wonder of the divine to which we gain access by yielding up our own limited personality. Only when we trim our sails to the eternal winds do we begin to understand the sort of journey we are capable of undertaking. Only by voluntary, unreserved surrender to God can we find our home. Any other sort of refuge is only a temporary shelter, a poor hovel on shifting sand destined eventually to fall in ruins. Adoration in a stable is preferable to terror before a throne. There is much wisdom in the ancient teaching about the passing of the soul because it embodies the idea that man can only become himself by stepping outside himself. Pray and praise are the two key words to human liberty. The kneeling attitude with outstretched hands is the correct attitude for a free man.
Our age, like those before us, has tried many others. But the life-urge is very strong in any man of genuine feeling and it keeps forcing him back to his own potentialities. We found it very hard to let go of beautiful things. But in the end we have to. We came to the stable by a road which was laborious, terrifying and blood-soaked and this miserable dwelling was at the end of it. Our hands are empty—more than empty. They are torn and bleeding because things literally had to be wrenched from their grasp. But in spite of everything we can hear and recognize the call, if we can discover the inner meaning of the grim experience through which we are passing and if in the midst of this frightfulness we can learn to pray, then this hell will bring forth a new man and a blessed hour will strike for the troubled earth in the middle of the night—as it has so often before.
The fate of mankind, my own fate, the verdict awaiting me, the significance of the feast, can all be summed up in the sentence surrender thyself to God and thou shalt find thyself again. Others have you in their power now; they torture and frighten you, hound you from pillar to post. But the inner law of freedom sings that no death can kill us; life is eternal. Pray and praise—the fundamental words of life, the steep roads to God, the doors that lead to fulfillment, the ways that lead a man to his true self.
[excerpt from The Prison Meditations of Father Delp]